10/31/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Report Reveals Seafood Fraud in Shrimp

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Do you know where your shrimp comes from? Probably not.

Today, Oceana released a new scientific report revealing that 30 percent of shrimp products tested from grocery stores and restaurants were misrepresented. The only known study of its kind in the U.S., the report also revealed that consumers are often provided with little information about the shrimp they purchase, including what species or type it is, where and how it was caught, or whether it was farmed, making it nearly impossible for consumers to make informed and sustainable seafood choices.

Americans love shrimp. Shrimp is the most commonly consumed seafood in the United States and the most highly traded seafood in the entire world. In 2012, 89 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. was imported from other countries, according to a 2013 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But this high demand makes consumers increasingly vulnerable to seafood fraud -- when seafood products are misrepresented, including mislabeling or species substitution. This substitution can happen at any step in the supply chain -- at the restaurant, the distributor, or the processing and packaging facility. It can also occur deliberately, when high-quality seafood is swapped out for a cheaper or more abundant species.

Oceana scientists collected shrimp samples from restaurants and grocery stores across the U.S., including the Gulf Coast. They then used DNA testing to determine the exact identity of each sample. This level of precision is important, because more than 40 species are allowed to be labeled and sold as just "shrimp" in the U.S., while only seven types require a more specific name at the point of sale.

When the results came in, Oceana discovered misrepresented shrimp everywhere it tested. A full 30 percent of the 143 shrimp products tested were misrepresented: either mislabeled (15 percent), misleading (10 percent), or unidentifiable or commingled, with at least two different species in the same bag (5 percent). For example, mislabeling can occur when farmed shrimp is marketed as a wild-caught species. Misleading labeling could consist of shrimp sold as "Gulf" shrimp, presumably wild-caught, when the shrimp were actually farmed in the Gulf.

Oceana also surveyed the information available to consumers on menus and in grocery stores. Their scientists looked to see if the packaging or restaurant menu included details about where, or how a shrimp species was caught, what species or type it was, and if the shrimp was wild or farmed. In grocery stores, 30 percent of the products did not provide information about where the shrimp was from and 20 percent did not provide details on whether the shrimp was wild caught or farm-raised. The majority of the 600 restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp and whether it was farmed or wild caught.

Unfortunately, it's not just shrimp that is subject to high levels of seafood fraud. In a similar nationwide study of fish, released last year, Oceana found that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 fish samples it tested were not accurately labeled, according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

These levels of fraud and consistent lack of information are unacceptable -- they undermine responsible fishermen, thwart conservation efforts, and prevent consumers from making sustainable seafood choices. That's why Oceana is campaigning to stop seafood fraud by requiring traceability for all types of seafood. We need to be able to track what fish we are eating, where and how our seafood is caught or farmed, and see this information follow seafood through the entire supply chain, from boat to plate.

This June, President Obama created a dedicated government task force to combat seafood fraud and help keep illegally caught fish out of the U.S. market. We are encouraging the task force to require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. to ensure that it is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.

Until then, ask more questions about the seafood you purchase, including what kind it is, if it is wild caught or farm-raised, and where and how it was caught. Let grocers, fishmongers, and restaurants know that you care about where your seafood comes from.